Disabled presenters tend to face really intense ableism. One way this plays out is that audiences laugh at us when we talk about serious things.
This happens particularly frequently when:
- Nondisabled professionals or our parents are also on the panel, or presenting right before or after us.
- The audience is primarily parents of disabled children/adults.
- The audience is primarily professionals who work with people with intellectual disabilities.
- We talk about a desire to be taken seriously.
- We discuss our objections to being treated like children.
- We describe being proud of a personal accomplishment.
- We describe being treated inappropriately by a professional.
- We describe how we felt as disabled children.
When audiences do this, it’s not nice laughter. It’s a way of asserting power. That laughter means “I don’t have to take you seriously”.
As a disabled presenter, it’s often possible to insist on respect. It’s easier said than done. It gets easier with practice, but the practice often hurts. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:
It can help to remind yourself that you know what you’re talking about, and the things you’re saying are important:
- You’re presenting because you know what you’re talking about.
- People should take your expertise seriously. When you talk about the things you know, they shouldn’t laugh at you.
- Your accomplishments are not a joke. People should not laugh or be condescending about them.
- People who treat you like a baby are doing something wrong. Your desire to be treated in an age-appropriate way is not a joke. People shouldn’t laugh at you for talking about it.
When an audience laughs at you, it can help to make it uncomfortable for them:
- Don’t smile, and don’t laugh yourself.
- Wait for the audience to stop laughing.
- Wait a second before going on to make it feel awkward.
- One option: Ask the audience “Why is that funny?” then continue.
- Another option: Repeat what you said before people started laughing.
Try to avoid nervous laughter and nervous smiles:
- It’s taboo for disabled people to talk about disability.
- Talking about taboo topics can be embarrassing.
- When we’re talking about embarrassing things, it can be natural to smile or laugh nervously.
- If you seem embarrassed, the audience is more likely to feel like the topic is embarrassing and laugh to get rid of the embarrassment.
- If you laugh, the audience is more likely to feel like it’s ok for them to laugh.
Making jokes on purpose:
- Making jokes can be a way to control what people are laughing about.
- This can be easier than getting them to not laugh in the first place.
- In these contexts, it can be better to avoid self-deprecating humor.
- It’s usually better to make jokes about ableism.
- (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule though, do what works for you.)
For instance, say you’re giving a talk about educational discrimination:
- This is self-deprecating:
- “I was this ridiculous little kid in third grade. I was so enthusiastic, but I couldn’t even read. I’d hold up the books and pretend. My imaginary friend may have stolen the cookies, but she sure didn’t read for me.”
- This is making fun of ableism:
- “My teachers kept assigning me worksheets that I couldn’t do. They kept making me read in front of the class, even though I could never do it. They kept telling me to just do it. And they say we’re the ones who lack empathy and theory of mind.”
Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong:
- Presenters/panelists with disabilities face intense ableism.
- It’s going to hurt sometimes.
- The problem isn’t that your skin is too thin; the problem is that people are hurting you.
- A thick skin is still worth developing.
- If an audience laughs at you, it’s their fault, not yours. They shouldn’t act like that.
- It’s messed up that we have to develop skills at deflecting ableism and insisting on respect.
- It’s also worth knowing that these skills exist and can be learned.
- It gets much easier with practice, but no one succeeds all the time.
- When a talk goes bad, don’t beat yourself up, and don’t blame yourself for the audience’s ableism.
- You’re ok, they’re ableist, and the things you have to say are still valuable when they’re not valued.
These are some of the methods I’ve used to deal with audience ableism. There are others. What are yours?
Short version: When disabled presenters give serious presentations, people often laugh at us in ableist ways. Scroll up for some strategies on how to handle that attitude from an audience.